This is from my journal.
July 1, 2021
Last night I saw “Springsteen on Broadway.” It’s the first full-length show on stage since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered Broadway theaters 470-something days ago. Proof of vaccination was required to enter the St. James Theater. I went with my book editor, Jofie Ferrari-Adler. My daughters love his name. I love him for his friendship and the profound impact he’s had on my writing career. Publishing The Dynasty together during the pandemic was a lifeline. We agreed to meet beforehand for dinner in Midtown at Oceana.
Before heading to the city for the evening, I rode my bike to a beach called The Strand. I’ve always thought that’d be a cool name for a band or a great title for a romance novel. But where I come from The Strand is a narrow stretch of sand behind a dune on Long Island Sound. To get there you have to walk a footpath between a split-rail fence and shoulder-high beach grass. I grew up nearby.
With seven hours until showtime, I unfolded my beach chair, sat down, and put in earbuds to listen to Springsteen and get in the mood. My mind immediately flashed back to the summer of 1984 ….
…. I’m 18. It’s graduation day. Mom says, “Jeff, where you going?” I tell her, “Pleasure Beach.” It’s a block away. Before walking across the stage to get my diploma, I figure I’ll work on my tan and think about the future. I unfurl my towel, put on my headphones and hit PLAY on my Walkman. Springsteen’s Born in the USA has just come out. “I’m on Fire” speaks to me.
Tell me now, baby, is he good to you?
And can he do to you the things that I do?
Oh no, I can take you higher.
Oh, oh, oh, I’m on fire.
I’d had my eye on a few pretty girls in high school. But they never noticed me. Sitting on the beach that day, I couldn’t wait to leave home and get on the wide open road. I wanted to go places beyond my little town in Waterford, Connecticut. Wanted to experience something bigger. See places. Cities. Feel speed. Meet a girl. Fall in love. Make a difference.
After graduation I drove across country in a Volkswagen bus with a stick shift. Went all the way to the west coast. I lived out there for a few years. And I met a girl who noticed me the first time I looked at her. She was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. She was from Seattle. In the summer of ’88, she flew east to meet my family. When she landed at Bradley, she was wearing a white cotton jumper with elastic-gathered hems at the ankle and narrow straps that tied above each shoulder. A colorful sash tied at her waist. She had bought the outfit at a street market in San Juan, Mexico. It accentuated her curves and brown skin. She was wearing an ankle bracelet. I was so distracted I took the wrong exit out of the airport and we nearly ended up in Springfield.
A few nights later I took her to Pleasure Beach and gave her a ring. To her parents’ dismay, she said yes, forfeited a scholarship from a school back west and stayed with me in Connecticut. Two months later we married. We were so strapped that a woman at our church volunteered to make our wedding cake. Our honeymoon in the White Mountains lasted three days. That summer, we listened to Tunnel of Love a lot.
It ought to be easy, ought to be simple enough
Man meets woman and they fall in love.
She was 18. I was 22 ….
….. I looked down from my beach chair at Lydia. The girl from Seattle is 51 now. I’m 55. We’ve been together 33 years. Wearing a bikini and stretched out on a towel in the sand, she’s reading a book with our 15-year-old daughter Clara Belle, the youngest of our four children. How did this happen?
My ticket to Springsteen on Broadway cost more than my first car, a used Toyota I picked up for $500 in 1983. But the price of admission was worth every penny. More than any other American artist, Bruce’s music narrates my journey. Life is short and I want to remember.
I looked at my phone – 2 pm. Time to go. Lydia and Clara told me they loved me. “Enjoy Bruce,” Lydia said. “Have fun with Jofie,” Clara added.
It was 95 degrees when my train pulled into Grand Central and I walked to the restaurant. When Jofie and I saw each other, we were both listening to Bruce and smiling. We removed our earbuds and embraced.
Outside the St. James Theatre, we were asked to present our photo IDs and proof of vaccination. As we take our seats in a Broadway theater for the first time in 18 months, I was overcome with gratitude. I’m a husband, a father, a writer. I’m with my editor. We’re in New York City. Bruce is in the building. No one is wearing a mask. I’m alive.
When Springsteen walked on stage with an acoustic guitar slung over his shoulder, the place erupted. All 1,700 of us are on our feet. With his hands, he motions us to sit down. “I am here tonight to provide proof of life,” he said.
Springsteen on Broadway isn’t a concert – he talked more than he sang. It’s not a play either. Rather it was a 2 hour and 45-minute trip through your life. I roared with laughter and wiped away more than one tear. I reflected on my relationships with my parents, with my wife, with my children. I related to everything he said about family and the church and the neighborhood – all those influences that shape us and lift us and sometimes hurt us and ultimately define us. At one point, Bruce recited the Lord’s Prayer. All of us did. “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
Man, all of us need forgiveness and redemption. All of us are wrong sometimes. None of us have all the answers.
My favorite part of the entire show – the part that caused me to struggle the most to keep it together – was when he reminisced about being young and leaving home for good.
“You feel finally being untethered from everything you’ve ever known,” he told the audience. “Your life laying before you like a blank page. It’s the one thing I miss about getting older, I miss the beauty of the blank page. So much of life in front of you. Its promise, its possibilities, its mysteries, its adventures. That blank page….Just lying there, daring you to write on it.”
Then he strummed his guitar and uttered some of the greatest opening lines ever penned for a rock and roll song:
The screen door slams, Mary’s dress sways
Like a vision, she dances across the porch as the radio plays.
As he strummed, the goosebumps rose on my arms and I felt transported back to a sprawling parking lot in the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, New Jersey. It was August 1992 and Bruce was opening his North American tour by playing 11 consecutive sold out shows at Brendan Byrne Arena. Eleven! A quarter of a million people trekked to the Meadowlands to see The Boss that summer. Lydia and I were among them. She was 22. I was 26. We had no children, no job prospects and no money. We drove a Pinto.
But when we walked into the arena that night, life felt pretty perfect. We had our lives in front of us. Bruce played for four hours. The encore included ten songs. Afterward, soaked in sweat, we got in the car and rolled down the windows. Traffic was bumper to bumper. The tip of the Empire State Building was visible in the distance like a beacon. And we were listening to “Thunder Road.”
Show a little faith, there’s magic in the night ….
A week later I took an unpaid internship in Boston working with a civil rights leader. We left our second-story apartment on the beach in Connecticut for a cramped apartment along an alley in Brookline. Lydia enrolled at Northeastern University, where she graduated at the top of her class. She was eight months pregnant when she walked across the stage at the Boston Garden to accept her diploma. Sitting in the audience, I beamed and made a mental note: She’s tougher and smarter than you’ll ever be. I’m a lucky guy. A month later, she had our first child and named him Tennyson. When he was 16, I took him to his first stadium concert. It was the summer of 2012 and Springsteen and the East Street Band were playing at Fenway Park. Tennyson brought a childhood friend named Lena along. They’d known each other since they were little. When Bruce played “Thunder Road,” I glanced at my son and thought: I love being this kid’s dad.
As Springsteen stood on stage at the St. James Theater, talking about the beauty of the blank page, I had the sobering realization that mine isn’t blank anymore. But my son’s is. He’s 24 now and studying for the bar exam and applying for jobs, two miserable experiences that heighten the itch to be untethered and to be recognized by someone – anyone! – that will take a chance on you. The page doesn’t look beautiful when it’s blank. The beauty is in the possibilities, the glory in the daring.
When Bruce finished his last number and the house lights came on, I turned to Jofie. We both just shook our heads. Sometimes words aren’t necessary. We exited the theater onto 44th Street into a sea of Springsteen fans, a misty rain falling. Everyone was giddy. I felt like George Bailey in the closing scene of It’s a Wonderful Life. I didn’t want the moment to end.
My train left Grand Central at 11:30 pm. The man across the aisle looked tired. He had on work boots, jeans, and a denim workman’s jacket. He had a metal lunch box. Reminded me of my dad. A teen mother with bags strapped over her shoulders sat behind him. Minutes later, the train stopped in Harlem and a bunch of Yankees fans got on. Loud and boisterous, they were heading home from the Stadium. I was listening to “Land of Hope and Dreams.”
Well, this train carries saints and sinners
This train carries losers and winners
This train carries whores and gamblers
This train carries lost souls
It felt so good to be aboard.
The conductor approached. “Tickets please.”